Windows into the Past

With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!

But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect Machado Silvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”

Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.

A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: Reimagining a Ruin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.

Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.

6 responses to “Windows into the Past

  • Jessica Herbert

    Donna, This is a very interesting article on the “reclamation” of the Virginia – Francis Lightfoot Lee House. Thank you for posting it. Interestingly enough, I am traveling to Virginia (my birth place) in a few weeks to explore several potential historic preservation project properties that I may take on. The Northern Neck, Olde Town Alexandria, and Danville Virginia all have the true ideals of what preservation really is and support it through serious local legislation and guidelines — unlike what has been happening in Salem for decades now in both the under & the unprotected areas of the City. While you prepare your planned “monster preservation post (or lack thereof), keep in mind that it is the laxity of the rules in Salem (SRA, ZBA, DRB), not specifically the developers who are following those rules when they are awarded greatly increased numbers of units to “stuff” into small historic buildings, who are ultimately to blame for creating the climate for massive city-wide destruction of small historic buildings. There are exceptions — namely the few developers who’s projects are developed to qualify for Federal & State income tax credits, and thus must follow specific historic preservation rules. However, as long as Salem maintains its administrative climate of laissez-faire toward developers and pushes massive creation of housing units, no local historic preservation organizations or individuals will stem the tide of this rapid eradication of Salem’s historic architectural identity. — An example: Who can afford to take a small historic house, (purchase it at today’s crazy prices–if they don’t already own it), and dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into it, and end up with a small single family house that they could not recover those invested costs of acquisition and restoration in a potential sale in today’s market. I refer to the example of the very small Daniel Bray house on Brown Street, which was owned by the PEM (so no acquisition cost), but required over $300,000+ worth of restoration work (as I understand it) to bring it to a basic box–no kitchen or bathroom, etc. If this little house were owned by an individual, not the PEM, and it was in an unprotected area of Salem, it would likely have sold for some $225,000+ in it’s pre-restoration condition, and the new owner (developer or homeowner) been “granted by Salem” to become at least a 2-family dwelling, thus allowing the “blowing out the sides, back and roof, and achieving perhaps 2 condo units that would sell for, say, $450,000 each/$900,000 total— How many people would invest the money to restore such a tiny house, exactly as it was historically, for the huge investment that it would take at today’s costs? Answer, they wouldn’t, or at least they would be preservation idealists with a ton of money, and would be satisfied to live in small quarters. — The mission is: (1) To work with the developers who ALREADY have the “City’s permission” to blow these small historic buildings up into a 3, 4, 5 & 6+ unit condominiums for sale or rental, and encourage them to save as much as they can of the historic fabric, and design new additions to be compatible with the historic essence of the original building; and, at the same time (2) Work to change the climate in Salem to increase respect for the historic architecture that fuels the economic vibrance of the city. The general population of Salem, as well as the administration, must be encouraged to value the stock of Salem’s historic buildings as much as the current economic temptation to “cash in” on the massive development rewards that are present now, and are being pushed by both the City and the State, to saturate Salem everywhere and anywhere possible with as many new housing units as possible, and to do it as quickly as possible, before market forces change or new restrictive development measures are finally instituted. — It’s a huge and complicated job, but achieving preservation success takes money, political backing, and dedicated preservation professionals and volunteers to fully understand the mission, and a climate of dedication to that mission as a long term team effort.

  • Norm Corbin

    Hi Donna, Very interesting article thanks!

    I’m very much interested in reading your “monster” preservation ideas. I’m the chair of the Northborough MA Historic District Commission, one of our responsibilities is historic preservation. What we are finding is that the education of town citizens about local history and preservation options is critical. Very few understand the role of National Register listing, Local Historic Districts and Preservation Restrictions for protecting properties. We just had one of the oldest farmhouses with a thoroughly documented history torn down for four McMansions built on very tiny lots. This teardown made us realize we need to be proactive with the owners of antiques to encourage long term preservation. In reality, only the property owners can apply long term preservation protections. I keep having to explain this to people upset with the teardown of antiques. They seem to think “government” can step in and stop the demolition.

    PS: I grew up in Salem and hope to get back in 2021 for a visit.

    • daseger

      Hello Norm, yes, I think you’re right. And Jessica, who just commented before you, was the chairman of our Historical Commission here in Salem for many years and I think she would agree. She very much favors working one on one with the homeowners which is great, but I really think there needs to be more general education as well. Every single time some old house is tampered with in Salem, people say, “it’s in a historic district”, but it’s not! And you’re so right, there are all sorts of misconceptions about what the “government” can and cannot do. I need to do a lot more research about the state of historic preservation today, but basically I’m wondering if we can find more protection for buildings which are not in the established historic districts. I’m so sorry about the farmhouse!

  • Jessica Herbert

    Hi Donna & Norm, Just a quick note to emphasize that most unfortunately, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places does not protect historic properties. One case in point: Herbert House, a brick Georgian and the oldest house in Hampton, Virginia, which was one of my 18th century family homes, build by John Herbert in 1753, It was listed on the National Register in 1972. However, that didn’t save it and its many acres that fronted the Hampton River and the Chesapeake Bay from sale and development in 1987 — being completely choked by an insensitive condominium development of 20 single family units that closely surrounded the historic house. And, it wasn’t until it was sold again in 2000, separate from the condominium units, that the brick Georgian was rehabilitated and a large marina was constructed completely changing the quiet historic character of the entire peninsula. The house had suffered much damage from neglect by multiple changing owners, but also from the raging North Atlantic storms. Herbert House was not restored with precise preservation expertise and care, but at least it remains today, structurally sound, but unfortunately, not open to the public. Individual preservation restrictions on historic houses and inclusion in local historic districts, plus committed local historic commissions are among the most effective tools for preservation. And, I agree with you both, and as I have noted above, education and teaching of the public, particularly owners of historic properties, as well as local municipal administrators and legislators, is essential for preservation to win over the competition that extremely high profit development forces present to desirable communities like Salem, and clearly, Northborough as well.

  • nancabotgmailcom

    This is absolutely fascinating, what they have done to the partially destroyed original house. I wonder if it will start a trend in historic preservation?

  • fairlynch

    Wonderful, Donna. We have damaged so much valuable heritage here in the UK, and yet I imagine that there are plenty of Brits who think that everything in the US is brash and ‘modern’.

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